Bringing the War Home (Why I’m Not Palestinian)

This post was written by Richard on June 7, 2010
Posted Under: Anti-War,Islamophobia,Israel/Palestine

In the 1960s and 70s, two ultra leftist groups, the Weathermen in the USA, and the Red Army Faction in West Germany, used the same slogan to clarify the motivation for their violent response to the US invasion of Vietnam: ‘bringing the war home.’

There are two movements we can describe as ‘bringing the war home’ at the moment in the UK. One if the EDL, the other is the Palestine movement. Neither is intrinsically progressive, and both have huge potential. Obviously, however, we have no interest in helping the potential of the EDL, and every interest in furthering the progressive elements within the pro-Palestine movement.

The EDL are indeed the ‘cutting edge of racism’, but this doesn’t mean they are outsiders. Rather, they are exaggerating ideas at the heart of the British state’s war rhetoric. The recent investigations by the Guardian and the BBC have shown clearly that there is (at least for now) a few black and asian supporters among the EDL. The key here is not that the EDL aren’t racist: but simply that skin is no longer the locus of their struggle. Instead, perceptions of Islam (fundamentalist and otherwise), those same perceptions peddled by all three political parties over the years, have taken centre stage. There has been a movement away from skin and towards faith: note the prevalence of crosses, both on the English flags and on necklaces worn by EDL members. And surely this is the same kind of religion-baiting adopted by Richard Dawkins and other populist atheists.

On the other side, the Palestinian movement seems also to be shifting (growing up, perhaps): no longer are there the cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ outside the Israeli embassy, and anti-Zionist jews are welcome at the demonstrations. Here the locus of struggle is still within the realm of religion, but not exclusively – it still also remains in that of nationality. The cries of ‘Viva Viva Palestina’ are increasingly joined by ‘In our thousands in our million, we are all Palestinians’, and the even more the disturbing ‘from the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’.

The first of these is a cry of support, the last a promise of revolutionary justice, with a potential for veiled anti-semitism. The middle slogan, however, is one of the creation of a political subjectivity, and one based very much around nationality. Just as the Proletariat, the Indigenous, the Global South or the Multitude are the naming of a global resisting mass, through which a common identity can be formed, so the “thousands and millions of Palestinians” attempts to invoke a mass movement around Palestine. However, here the name is given by a nation. Israel was created in a similar way, through the invocation of a nation as a unifying call for a political movement to support an oppressed people, a call which did create a political subjectivity, one which still survives.

The EDL are similarly attempting to create a political subjectivity around the notion of England, a subjectivity which includes non-white skin, but still supports a base Nationalism. The different levels of capital and power employed by England and Palestine, neither of which are sovereign states, does not make a difference to the nationalism within them. And this is the bringing home of the war, the resort to nationalism as a mode of struggle.

I do find this worrying. No, it’s not something we can easily change and yes, there are more important immediate aspects within the Gaza movement (as I would rather call it) to be addressed. But we shouldn’t abandon the political subjectivities we form for ourselves in order to show solidarity, so I won’t be claiming to be a Palestinian any time soon.

What I think we are doing here is bringing the war home – but not in a useful way, and not in its physically violent form (as the Weathermen did), but in its structurally violent one. And in doing so, we risk replicating the discourse of their war, rather than our own.

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Reader Comments

Gloria

Yes – the attempt to create that kind of global nationalist callout first troubled me during the Israeli all-out attack on Gaza Dec 2008- Jan 09.

I always felt my strength in those crowds was that I was not Palestinian, nor did it matter that my passport says I am a UK citizen – but that I was voicing anger and concern as a person first(albeit one within a certain social/ cultural context, blah). I felt that to claim to being Palestinian would be to inherit – too personally – the anger, the pain and the hopelessness which so many Palestinian people suffer and have suffered. Feeling an injustice is not quite the same as inhabiting it.

I’m really interested by this context – I hadn’t thought about it in terms of RAF, Weathermen, EDL etc.

#1 
Written By Gloria on June 7th, 2010 @ 5:43 pm
John

Hmm… I don’t recall a Palestine demonstration where anti-zionist Jews weren’t welcome. Maybe that wasn’t your point, though that’s how it reads.

From my perspective it seems that Palestine as a cause of Muslim civil society rather than just the liberal left PSC/JFJFP is a rather new, post Stop the War (even Respect?) development. That could just be a moving to London change, but I think not. I don’t remember the Takbirs before.

Historically, secular nationalist and religious Palestinian movements are quite separate, and not easily reconciled.

You seem to be implying that nationalism is intrinsically non-progressive, which is obviously not the case. Nationalism was a core component of the progress to modernity. For the Palestinians (or rather, those living in the occupied territories), statehood is a vital and urgent material requirement. It’s not a solution of course, but it is surely the only possible starting point.

#2 
Written By John on June 7th, 2010 @ 5:44 pm
Lenochka

I think John raises a fair point. At least on the ground here the shift over time has been very much in the opposite direction: from secularism to religion. I don’t know if the state of mind of the diaspora corresponds to that of the local Palestinians.
I think the question of Palestinian nationalism and its evil has to be addressed in a wider context. Two aspects to consider is that civil society in the territories themselves is almost non-existent, the second that the chances of a peace solution that would come from within Israel-Palestine are negligible. On both sides of the table we have weak, incompetent governments massively lacking in popular support. As John has pointed out rightly, the solution is needed, and the only one that looks realistic is that one that implies a creation of a state for people living in the occupied territories, whether we consider them a nation or not.
The question of nationalism kicks in when you start thinking about where within the two-state solution is the space for refugees. Those people (let’s call them Palestinian for short) who had to leave the country due to threats of armed conflict or have been directly expelled, some of whom were fortunate to end up in Europe or America (minority) and the others less-fortunate, who ended up in camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. For the most part the latter have not been absorbed, and they and their children and grandchildren carry on living with the status of refugee. For them their Palestinian-ness is very important, because their needs as individuals and groups are often not met and they are left out of the peace process game as an entity. It is important for them to reinforce their identity with those who stayed in West Bank and Gaza or moved there. They have to have a way of saying “look, we deserve a home and a passport, no less than those living in the territories” and they are right, and they often live in much more dire conditions. Otherwise, they are forgotten, because the right of return has become a hush-hush topic (will never be acceptable to Israel demographically) and no-one even speaks of paying compensations any more.
I think Palestinian nationalism is an interesting topic, and I see where you are coming from, but I think the parallel with RAF is misleading, and that from London you can only perceive part of the issue.

#3 
Written By Lenochka on June 7th, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

So many problems with this I’m not sure where to start.

There’s the horrible habit of indulging in pseudo-intellectual rhetoric as a cover for not having anything to say. And that’s something I really can’t stand. Let’s have clear thinking expressed through clear language.

There’s the bizarre notion of ‘progressive elements’ in the Palestinian solidarity movement. No. The movement is inherently progressive because what it stands for is progressive. It doesn’t need to have ‘progressive elements’ within it. This comes unnervingly close to Islamophobia: after all, where does this assumption of other elements implicitly being non-progressive come from? I can’t figure out a more generous interpretation.

Then there’s the unsubstantiated slurs against the movement’s history – e.g. when were Jewish people ever not welcome? This involves an evidence-free revisionism about the history of the movement. It’s also part of a more general ‘controversialism’ which is rather infantile.

The notion that anything at all connects Palestinian solidarity with the EDL is deeply offensive, wrong, and has no evidence to back it. As John notes above, it also depends upon a false understanding of ‘nationalism’ and the politics of identity. If you can’t see that chants referring to Palestine are progressive – not nationalistic – you desperately need a basic reality check, plus a dash of history.

#4 
Written By Alex Snowdon on June 7th, 2010 @ 8:43 pm
Michael

Basically agree with Alex above. Would add that, where there is an element of nationalism in Palestinian campaigns (which there probably is some time), this is the last place on earth where we should be prioritizing our theoretical objections to the concept of the nation state over any reasonable opportunity to show solidarity.

With regards England not being a soveriegn state, if your point is that a defense of Palestinian nationalism could be equally well applied to English nationalism as represented by the EDL then it is absurd. The EDL’s fear of waking up with more than x% of the country non-WASP cannot be seen in a non racist sense. The Palestinians fear of waking up with thier house a pile of rubble because of the thier lack of controll over the land they occupy, controll which, at the moment, only comes with being a nation state with the right to protect thier borders, can be.

#5 
Written By Michael on June 7th, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

@John – yes, my point wasn’t that anti-Zionist jews were unwelcome before, but that they were actively welcomed this time compared with January 2009, in my own experience. I thought this was interesting, contrasted with the grinning EDL members hugging their one Asian ex-Muslim member in the BBC3 documentary. (That also answers one of Alex’s points. apologies if I was ambiguous).

@Lenochka – I think there’s an important difference between the idea of nationalism as part of a two-state solution (something on which I am not going to comment on, as I feel that arguments both ways take up far too much blog space) and the idea of nationalism as a political subjectivity for people who are not immediately part of that nation except through a conscious identification. The Palestinian identification held by refugees/ the Palestinian diaspora is, I think, a very conceptually different notion from that of London leftists making the identification. Thank you for the comparison however, definitely food for thought.

@Michael – absolutely, we should show solidarity at any reasonable solidarity. But I think this can occur alongside critique. And yes, there is a clear difference between English nationalists in England and Palestinian nationalists in Palestine, and I think these different, conflicting notions of nationality and nationhood are worth analysing.

@Alex – wow, you wrote the comment I knew someone would write.
Firstly, I don’t think I need to say why cries of Allahu Akbar and holding banners that simply proclaim ‘la ilaha illallah muhammadur rasulullah’ is not progressive. I don’t think that counts a statement of hate or fear on my part.
As for the EDL comparison, as my entire post described, the link I’m talking about is purely conceptual, not political.
Finally, I’m glad that my ‘not having anything to say’ produced so much else worth saying.

#6 
Written By Richard on June 7th, 2010 @ 11:15 pm
Jacob

Richard, I broadly agree with what you are saying here – I too remain suspicious of the revolutionary potential of national liberation struggles in 2010, although I think that it is possible that instead of identifying a real problem with politics (the fact is that the Palestinian cause for all sorts of internal political reasons will continue to present the liberation of Palestinians from oppression as a matter of national liberation) you are identifying a problem with sloganising in general. The fact is that slogans have a habit of being politically retrogressive, and whilst they have some kind of connection to a movement they can’t reliably be taken as a theoretical statement. The problem, of course, being that in the model of politics associated with certain parts of the left (stop the war et al) they are taken as theoretical statements around which one should base arguments.

#7 
Written By Jacob on June 8th, 2010 @ 9:23 am
Dave

Just to add my 2p about anti-semitism at rallies, I think it’s very much a correct statement that the risks have lowered, and it’s due to an increasing secularisation of the movement. I find it startlingly naive to suggest that there was not a time within the last decade – I don’t know about before that – at which it wasn’t fairly dangerous to admit to being a Jew at a pro-Palestinian rally. The movement has its few hundred nutters who’d be BNP if they weren’t Muslim, and if you end up in a group with a large proportion of them and you’re Jewish, you’re in trouble. The only thing that’s changed is the proportion of the total they make up, and the chances of finding yourself in a group made up solely of them.

Frankly, meaningful statehood for everyone is a trapping of success in resolving this issue. What is far more important is stopping this denial that there is some element – not infinitesimally small – of anti-semitism, and that’s one of the factors that causes violence and fear on both sides. If people out there genuinely believe that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is factual, then they have reason to be scared of Jews – and make no mistake, there are people who do believe such things are real.

When I see ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’ called “a promise of revolutionary justice, with a potential for veiled anti-semitism”, I see someone in denial. It’s an outright call to cleanse the land of Jews with guns, knives, and clubs. It is *not* nationalistic, except in the outdated Nasserite ‘Arab Nation’ sense. It is pure, unadulterated anti-semitic filth.

If there is a genuine desire to do any more than sit at dinner parties and condemn Israel morally, then we have to engage with Israel. Anyone who fails to condemn such blatant anti-Semitism, though, will be tarred with the same brush and lose all credibility with the people they’re supposedly trying to persuade.

#8 
Written By Dave on June 8th, 2010 @ 1:40 pm
Dave

I would also note, by the way, that if only ‘anti-Zionist Jews’ are welcome at demonstrations, then the people at those demos who would make non-anti-Zionist-Jews unwelcome are anti-Semitic, making an exception for some ‘good Jews’. If that wasn’t the case, then only the political, not the religious aspect is relevant.

#9 
Written By Dave on June 8th, 2010 @ 1:50 pm
anonymous

“The Gaza movement”?
Surely you mean “The West Bank and Gaza movement”? Or are you trying to differentiate between a movement that would try to get rid of the blockage around Gaza, and a movement that would try to create a palestinian state?

#10 
Written By anonymous on June 8th, 2010 @ 9:15 pm
Anonymous

What a terrible article, for all the reasons stated in the comments section above. And your response still does not offer critique or real analyses. In fact, as I see it, this article just plays into more Islamphobia, all in the name of being fair minded (balanced, and non-committal).

#11 
Written By Anonymous on June 9th, 2010 @ 2:35 am

Some interesting food for thought here. I’m not really sure what’s the most pertinent issue to address, but I guess I’ll start with some of the references and comments people have been making around the Muslim community and the Palestine movement.

Okay, I broadly agree that la ilaha illallah muhammadur rasulullah is not a hugely progressive slogan, but importantly this is only in the sense that religious slogans in general aren’t progressive; it’s dangerously easy here to imply that Islam is somehow more conservative and reactionary than other organised religions.
However, the presence of groups from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths and atheists marching together in a common cause seems to me inherently more progressive than anything else available. (And it’s important here to make the point that religious people on a march are different from a religious grouping marching as a block).
It’s undoubtable that some of these groups are more reactionary than others, but actually in order for the left to have any chance of convincing people of the merits of left-wing politics – as opposed to political religion – it needs to be engaged with these communities in some kind of common struggle. When we were leafleting the mosques in King’s Cross for Saturday’s demo, for example, people came up to us saying “I’m glad there are Stop the War people leafleting here – it means that someone else is talking politics apart from Hizb-ut Tahrir”. This is important, clearly, and it shows that the left needs to be engaging with a broad community and not just secular atheists.

I remember talking to you about the nationalist stuff at the demo, so I won’t go into much detail here apart from a reiteration of the idea that national liberation is generally a prerequisite to liberation from one’s own ruling class.

Anyway, I (surprise surprise!) broadly agree with the other points Alex has made here and I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on it.

Elly x

#12 
Written By Elly Badcock on June 9th, 2010 @ 10:20 am

On national liberation: as Jacob said, the potential of national liberation struggles in 2010 are questionable, given the nature of contemporary globalisation. Nonetheless, I am completely accepting of the very real need for leftists to support national liberation struggles in some parts of the world, including Palestine, and that’s why I march alongside Palestinians, while not identifying myself as such, and encourage others to do so. I would just rather we did it while invoking the proletariat, or the precariat, or whatever (which we choose is, I think, a central political point; perhaps the kernel of politics itself).

On religion: Absolutely. One of the things I was trying to do with this article was suggest ways we can understand radical religious politics as not just solely Muslim; i.e. to look at the radical Christian politics that lurk among the EDL, and also the radical atheism off which they feed as well. As I said, the locus of racist struggle seems to have shifted from skin to faith (or rather, outward symbols of that faith).

Your experience at the mosque sounds really great, I’d like to come along sometime.

#13 
Written By Richard on June 9th, 2010 @ 10:38 am

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